Searcy, Ark. – Hollies are a common symbol of the Christmas season, from the bright red berries to the foliage used in wreaths and flower arrangements. Hollies are also an important plant in Arkansas landscapes. This diverse family of plants is popular because they are easy to grow, most are evergreen, and they can add interest even to the winter landscape with red berries. Whether you are looking for a dwarf foundation plant, no taller than three feet, or an evergreen tree, you can find a plant in the holly family.
The holly family (Ilex) is very diverse. There are approximately 20 American holly species, 120 Oriental species and nearly 200 varieties of the English holly. Plants range in size from a mature height of eighteen inches to plants growing fifty feet taller or more. The plant may be evergreen or deciduous. And color is a choice, there are green forms, blue forms, and variegated foliage. The shape can vary from columnar, to rounded forms, pyramidal shapes, or weeping forms. They are used as stand-alone trees, foundation plantings, screens or hedges, mass plantings or as an accent plant.
While many people associate thorns with hollies, there are numerous varieties that are totally thornless–including most of our natives. Often people are growing these small leaved hollies, and think they are boxwoods. While there are thorned varieties available, few cause serious problems. The thorniest, and hardest to work with, is the Chinese holly, Ilex cornuta.
Hollies are dioecious plants, which means there are male flowers and female flowers located on separate plants. Female plants produce berries, while male plants don’t. While most of us want the berries, you must have a male plant in the vicinity to pollinate the female holly. Bees and other insects pollinate the flowers. "In the vicinity" is considered within two miles, although closer spacing would produce more berries. Even when you have fruiting plants, you will occasionally have a large crop, followed by a year with few to no berries. Most dwarf varieties never produce berries.
If you have a plant that does not produce berries there may be several reasons: it may be a male plant; if it is female, there may not be any males nearby; we could have had a late freeze which damaged the flowers; hot, dry summer weather caused the berries to fall; or you pruned your shrub hard, removing the flower buds.
In general, growing hollies is quite easy. Most holly cultivars require well-drained soil and prefer full sun, although they will tolerate partial shade. Hardiness will vary within species, but most will fare well throughout the state. In the northern counties, hollies usually grow best on southern or eastern exposures. They do best in a slightly acidic soil, and will grow in average soil, but will thrive in soil that has been amended with organic matter. If you choose the proper variety for your location, and therefore, know the mature height, you will have little to no pruning chores. Most of our hollies are container grown, although larger specimens can be found that are balled in burlap. Container plants can be planted any month of the year. It is best when planting container plants to score the root system in several places to encourage root establishment. Plant then at the depth they are growing in their container or slightly shallower. Then water the plants and mulch.
When choosing hollies for your landscape, consider how tall a plant you will need at maturity, and what use you have for it–a screen, a green covering for your foundation or a specimen plant. Basically, there are four forms a homeowner will choose–shrubs of varying height, tree forms, deciduous specimen plant or dwarf forms.
If you want a low growing fill plant for your landscape, the most common plant is the dwarf yaupon holly. The most common cultivars available are ‘Nana’ and ‘Shillings/Stokes Dwarf’. ‘Nana’ produces a compact plant with small leaves. It will grow three to five feet tall in time but can be kept smaller. ‘Shillings’ and ‘Stokes’ are one in the same and produce a smaller plant, no taller than three feet. Other choices include dwarf forms of the Japanese holly, Ilex crenata. Dwarf forms of the Japanese holly include Helleri, Red Lion and Tiny Tim. Japanese hollies are more sensitive to poor drainage problems, and typically have more problems than the yaupon hollies. A new variety that is on the market that forms a straight, narrow column called ‘Sky Pencil’.
Moving up the scale in size, there are numerous medium size plants. Again, in the Japanese holly family, the most common medium size selections include `Compacta' and `Convexa'. `Compacta' grows to six feet in height, while `Convexa' can get up to nine feet in height. In the Chinese holly family, look for dwarf Burford holly or needlepoint holly. There is also a group of hollies collectively lumped into the Meserve Hybrid hollies. This group includes the "blue" hollies, `Blue Boy', `Blue Girl', etc. The blue color is referring to the winter color of the foliage, which is a dark, blue-green color. While very winter hardy, they do struggle during hot, dry summers. They would fare better on the north side of your home but are worth the effort it takes to grow them. More heat tolerant members of this group include `China Girl' and `China Boy'.
If you need a taller plant, you have several good options, including the standard yaupon holly, Nellie R. Stevens holly, the Fosteri holly or the Savannah holly. Standard Burford holly will also make a good tall accent plant or hedge. And the tallest of them all includes the American holly or English holly. The American, being native is an easier plant to grow, with the English holly sometimes struggling in our hot, dry summers. Be sure you need a tall evergreen before adding one of these to your landscape, since they can grow to be quite large, up to 50 to 60 feet in height.
While many people prefer evergreen plants, there are some outstanding deciduous holly selections for the garden. Both Ilex decidua and Ilex verticillata provide wonderful winter color. When the foliage falls off, you are left with branches loaded with bright red berries all winter. Some good selections include: `Warren Red', `Council Fire' and `Winter Red'.
Hollies are good plant for our landscapes, and they aren’t limited in size or shape. The versatility of this family offers selections for almost every landscape, and they are easy to maintain. If you need to add to your landscape, check out the holly varieties.
The University of Arkansas System, Division of Agriculture is an equal opportunity/equal access/affirmative action institution. For additional information call the White County Cooperative Extension Service at 501-268-5394.
By Sherri Sanders
County Extension Agent - Agriculture
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture
Media Contact: Sherri Sanders
County Extension Agent - Agriculture
U of A Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service
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